(Investigator 108, 2006 May)

"A critically injured accident victim lies on a hospital theatre operating table, he hears a distant voice say there is little hope of saving him.

There is a loud ringing or buzzing sound in his ears as he starts moving through a long dark tunnel with a bright light at the end of it; suddenly he finds himself outside his physical body, looking down, and recognizing his own inert shape swathed in white and those gathered around; he watches as the doctor and attendants feverishly go about their business; he sees the spirits of former friends and relatives who greet him lovingly; a being of light asks him to evaluate his life and helps him remember with a playback of some of the major events in his life; he fights to return to his body, and wakes to find himself in a hospital ward with an anxious wife by his side.

He recovers, and later gropes for words adequate enough as he tries to relate his experience to others."

The foregoing is a typical description of what is termed "a near death experience", and which correlates generally with accounts given by accident and cardiac arrest victims after a life saving operation or resuscitation.

The possibility that we survive after death in spirit form has long intrigued man, and evidence for survival and matters relating to it has long been sought by both psychical and scientific researchers.

Dr Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia, claims to have evidence of a spirit capable of leaving its flesh and blood body, and many people believe that during a near death crisis they were transported to another level of existence.

Believers in survival after death argue that as people from widely divergent backgrounds and beliefs experience remarkably similar events, this points to the reality of the experience and provides compelling evidence for the continued existence in some form or other of a metaphysical body. One speculation suggests that a mechanism exists which releases the soul at death, and that in the case of a near death experience, the mechanism may be prematurely triggered.

In their book, At the Hour of Death, two parapsychologists, Karlis Osis and Erlandur Haroldsson, tend to support the idea of survival in their description of a typical near death experience: a "vision, usually while the patient is fully conscious and not sedated. The vision is generally that of a dead friend or relative, who is typically described by the patient as being there to take him into death."

Their conclusions were based on large numbers of questionnaires sent to physicians and nurses who, as trained observers, would be more likely to be accurate in their accounts than the patients themselves. If the reports are true, they would be comforting for those who believe in survival after death.

Since the early 1970s, NDEs have been the subject of clinical and scientific studies and in 1982, prompted the co-founding by a University of Connecticut psychologist of the International Association for Near Death Studies. Now based in Philadelphia, it has chapters in many countries including Australia.

Generally the findings of most studies indicate that there are distinct sequential stages through which the subjects pass – a loud ringing or buzzing sound in the ears, a feeling of tranquillity, leaving the body and observing their surroundings from a metaphysical body, a panoramic review of events in their past lives, being welcomed by deceased friends and relatives, entering a dark tunnel, perceiving a bright light, and entering the light.

Occasionally subjects will give vivid descriptions of heaven or hell. Quite often psychological and spiritual changes are produced in many who have had the experience, not the least of which is a decreased fear of death.

As one who has been personally subject to periodical and as yet unexplained blackouts since my early teens, I have experienced most of the above sensations although they have not been followed by any psychological or spiritual changes.

This leads me to speculate that perhaps NDEs have physiological and psychological explanations rather than metaphysical.

While the idea of friends to welcome one into a life hereafter is comforting, does the evidence support the concept?

Psychobiologists are suspicious of claims that mature consciousness exists beyond death, and sceptics point out that many of the sensations referred to also occur during psychedelic drug trips. So are they simply hallucinations?

A professor of earth sciences, Western Australian John Happs, gives what would appear to be the simplest and most plausible explanation:
"The brain is an incredible machine, and when you deplete its oxygen supply you can get it to create all sorts of hallucinations ... an altered state of consciousness can occur. There has been plenty of research done on altered states of consciousness, where the person is still conscious but the brain is creating scenes based on imagination."

Dr Susan Blackmore, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, has probably done as much research into NDEs and OBEs (Out of Body Experiences) as anyone, and has written definitively on the subjects.

 Her theory parallels that of Happs and is based upon brain physiology, cognitive psychology and her own work on OBEs. She explains what is understood of how a healthy brain works, and what happens as, suffocating and cut off from normal sensory input, the brain struggles to survive and maintain a coherent model of the world. This death struggle, she argues, produces the abnormal experiences of a NDE.

A fundamental objection to the hypothesis that some have witnessed life after death in a NDE, is that the experience was still that of a living person.


Alcock, J. 1979. "Psychology and Near-Death Experiences." Skepical Inquirer. 3(3):25-41.

Blackmore, S. 1982. Beyond the Body. Grenada. London.

----------------- 1993 Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York.

Brandon, R. 1983. The Spiritualists. Alfred A. Knopf.

Hines, T. 1988. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. New York.

Hobson, J. and McCarley, R. 1977. "Brain as a Dream State Generator." American Journal of Psychiatry. 134, 1335-1346.

Journal of Parapsychology, 1984. A Psychological Theory of the Out-of-Body Experience. Vol. 48. pp 201-218.

Osis, K. and Haraldsson, E. 1977. "Deathbed Observations Physicians and Nurses: A Cross-cultural Survey." Journal of the American Society for Physical Research. 71, 237-259.

Rawlings, M. 1978. Beyond Death’s Door. Thoman Nelson. New York.

Ring, K. 1980. Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the NearDeath Experience. Coward, McCann and Geoghegan. NY.

[From: Edwards H, A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age]

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